Monday, May 5, 2008

MJIF Jam Sessions @ Bennetts Lane: Where they belong!

MJIF Jam Sessions @ Bennetts Lane

Wed 30/4 – Sun 4/5: 12am – 3am

House Band: Sam Keevers Trio featuring Gian Slater

Sam Keevers – piano
Des White – double bass
Ben Vanderwal – drums
Gian Slater – voice

Yeah man! Every night throughout the festival there was a jam session at Bennetts Lane from midnight until 3. The first set was Sam Keevers Trio + Gian Slater, playing close to the same material each night, before the second set opened up the floor for a jam.

The atmosphere at these events was absolutely blissful. To a down-under-er who romanticises the fabled late night jam sessions so deliciously crucial to the rich history of this music, being here was paradise. In the smaller of two rooms at Bennetts Lane, the vibe was hot and the music was, for the most part, truly cookin’.

Sam’s quartet members deserve medals of honour, or I guess baggy greens, for surviving what he came to dub the ‘Melbourne Jazz five-day test’. They did so with pure class and musical integrity. An original trio piece or two of Sam’s generally opened the proceedings. His writing is disciplined and studied, using fourthsy voicings and broad, sweeping rhythmic figures to stitch lush canvases for improvisation. Check out his myspace to hear his playing.

Des White looks too young to be such a great player. His lines have a simple maturity combined with a bold sense of taste. His rhythm is strong and impeccable, meaning that he can anchor the trio while still rocking the waves of rhythmic displacement they all so enjoy riding. He rocks back and forth, seeming to deeply feel the rhythm mainly on two and four, which is pretty amazing considering the complexity of some of the time feels and the looseness of the swing.

Which brings us to Ben Vanderwal. I love watching Ben play because even though he puts out this great nonchalant attitude of ‘yeah, whatever’, he can’t help but play beautifully almost all the time. He has these hands that he just throws around the kit, floating them from piece to piece. It’s done in the precise but relaxed way that a solid rock drummer would play a fill, but inserted into the music with the syncopation and sophistication of a highly developed jazz vocabulary. The time is solid but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to follow him everywhere he goes! His cavalier solos on Monk’s Think of One were often highlights. Just to cap it all off, he plays a wicked back-beat.

Hearing Gian Slater was a revelatory experience, night after night. She’s a scatter through and through and can improvise like a great horn player, with amazing vocal control. She’s a Lydian kinda gal and has this amazing ability to hear the sharp 11 of any major or dominant chord in some fast-shifting changes and start her line from there. Flying loop-de-loop with gorgeous, playful arpeggios, she linked ideas in a seamless way that suggested she could have gone all night. She scats with eyes shut tight, but her face depicts her inner visualisations clear as day and you can just feel when she’s about to go for it.

Some people found Gian’s use of very high register off-putting but I never got tired of hearing her get up there, higher than you thought possible. Across the first few nights, her delivery of the actual lyrics was sometimes a bit disconnected, particularly on the standards, but once she settled in to the residency she opened up a bit more emotionally. The originals, including my personal favourite Don’t Close the Door, as well as the cover of Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist (brought to the band by Sam), were exciting forays into the emotive power of jazz and rock feels smashed beautifully together.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the highlights from the second set jams:

Wed 30 Apr

Kurt Elling’s drummer Kobe Watkins and bass player Rob Amster sat in on a couple of cookin’ tunes. This was the first glimpse of how much fun it can be to see a musician play a decidedly sideman gig with a big-name act in a concert hall, then get to see them head on down to the after-hours club to let off some steam! Aside from those guys, if there was anything exciting I’ve forgotten it all these days later. I remember there was a disappointingly low number of musicians on hand to sit in on the first night. Luckily, that changed!

Thu 1 May

I arrived just in time to see an amazing, energetic young Melbourne pianist named Adam Rudegeair launch into Well You Needn’t. He oozes Monk and is unashamed in his adoration for and emulation of the great man. Dr Abdullah Ibrahim’s trombonist Stafford Hunter and alto-ist Cleave Guyton launched onto the stage after Adam’s solo to huge applause and took the already-high thing through the roof.

Imagine the intensity with which a couple of New Yorkers who have just played the most restrained, delicate, 2-hour gig of their lives might unleash the beast and you have some idea of the spectacle!
There were plenty of musicians on hand to sit in tonight, including some great local talent. There were also a couple of faltering moments, but there was generally enough combined experience and wisdom among the rhythm sections to avert train-wrecks and wrap things up when trouble loomed.

The stole was ultimately stolen, smash and grab style, by an English backpacker named Nancy who, for all her musical inconsistency, belted out a couple of showstoppers with the absolute conviction that she was going to give us a night to remember. It’s a quirky pleasure to behold someone going at it full pelt and man, Sam Anning, Ben VanderWal and Sam Keevers did a ridiculous job of keeping One Note Samba happening beneath lyrics that morphed, shifted and sometimes weren’t there at all! Nancy did succeed in getting people to dance and I think generally a good time was had by all, more good than harm done. Wherever you are in the world Nancy, good on you for giving it a red hot go!

Fri 2 May

This sucker was sold out, full to overflowing before the band even hit! It hurt because my friend Melissa Western and I had our hearts set on a late-night jazz fix. It really was packed though and much respect to the wonderful Bennetts staff who dealt admirably with the unpleasant task of turning away would-be jazzers. We peeked in for awhile, just long enough to hear Gian get up in the clouds.

Sat 3 May

Melbourne-ites seemed to pop out of the woodwork tonight. The audience were treated to some very hip combos of local talent including Jamie Oehlers, Mike Storey, Raj (great young drummer, sorry dude I don’t know your last name!), Marc Hannaford and a technically-astounding trumpet player whose name I didn’t catch. The place was packed and each throw-together band rose to the occasion, carving up some Beautiful Love, Nardis and other familiar standards.

There was a Georgia On My Mind in which the band gave a master-class on how to wind up a song tastefully yet immediately when a singer clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing. We’re talking about a singer who, during the first couple of A-sections of a nice guitar solo, repeatedly invited the audience to applaud the bass player and pianist. Ouch, lady. Other than this, the specifics of this jam in particular are a bit lost in the festival blur, but there sure were some great moments and a pleasing revolving personnel.

Sun 4 May

The finale. Jon Weber on stage with JD Allen, George Mitchell and Raj (go Raj!) was so great. You can’t hear in your head how great the music was – that’s the whole conundrum with trying to write about the music for y’all. But if you can get yourself to a place where there are real hot jam sessions with world-class players, you can feel most the exact same excitement I felt hearing these cats go to town. There are no barriers to communication when everyone’s ears are open and they’re playing with their hearts and minds invested moment to moment. Few words were needed. This is where it’s at.

The night wound up with some less mind-blowing performances that were still fun to watch. There was a great Footprints (my favourite tune) in which a phenomenally articulate six-string electric bass player dug in with Ben Vdw and grooved the living daylights out of the 6/8 time signature. It was over pretty suddenly and surprisingly I craved more, only more bittersweet music, late into the night, early into the morning.

But alas...

All good things must come to an end. My deepest thanks go to Les, Lisa, Anna and the crew of hard-working festival staff and volunteers. They are the cogs that make the whole machine run smoothly and deliver us these amazing listening opportunities. Anna also deserves a special shout-out for being keeper of the jam session clipboard and seducing great players onto the stage with her charms.

There’s a cool thing that happens when you walk away from something like that last jam – the music keeps on playing in your ears. Getting home and lying down in bed means the jam starts up all over again! Even the next morning I was hearing Gian Slater lines soaring up in the sky, the trams were ricketing along the tracks in hip 6/8 and the music of the moment was the wind in the trees as I stepped out onto the streets for my first ‘non-jazz’ day in over a week. Although from one perspective, there is no such thing!

MJIF 2008: Day Five

Sunday 4 May: Day Five

This year’s festival experience ended with a bang, among other outrageous onomatopoeias, at Cindy Blackman’s concert at the Palms. More like Cindy SmackBAM! The drum tech was on stage about five times in the first few songs reattaching the bass drum to the hardware to which it clung for dear life.

Cindy’s drumming is so damn powerful, she’s like a furious beat machine set to overdrive. Even the ballad-tempo tunes stayed light for only a bar or three before the band’s predilection for busy textures prevailed. Cindy’s bass drum had a real deep tone to it and when she hit it hard it rang out like a timpani. It totally drowned out the double bass but I could see by the side-to-side movement of his dreadlocks that that dude was groovin’ HARD! I was lucky enough to see him play at the jam session later that night, confirming that the aural matches the visual. (More on that and other jams here)

I sat at the back of the room soaking in this immense wall of sound emanating from the stage. Despite being thoroughly over-jazzed, this was actually a pretty nice experience. I’ve definitely been drawn into the Tord Gustavsen Trio philosophy of using less to say more, but I guess that doesn’t mean you can’t use more to say something. Cindy and her band (JD Allen – saxophone; Carlton Holmes – keyboard, piano; George Mitchell – double bass) rocked the eff out, hard and constant, in a way that was certainly very impressive. Not my cup of herbal tea, but definitely a powerful kind of espresso for the ears.

A brisk walk to Bennetts Lane was motivated by fear of the final jam session selling out. Instead I arrived an hour and a half early and sat awkwardly alone at the front of the room for what felt like forever. People eventually filed in and it was a well-attended, musically very exciting finale. You can click here to read a post on the jam session series as a whole.

The night wound up around 4am with goodbyes to new friends and farewells to the festival vibe. I slept the deep sleep of musical saturation and awoke on Monday looking at Melbourne with fresh eyes. This is truly a wonderful place to spend time and I wish I had more days and nights here roaming the alleys.

There was so much music that I didn’t see this year. Ultimately, I think this allowed me to absorb more directly and wholly the experiences of the gigs I did see. Improvised music often provides so much information to the ears, elusively framed within the ever-moving window of the present instant. It’s really helpful to space these experiences out a bit and let the mind rediscover its thirst.

Go out and see live jazz. Believe me, there’s nothing quite like trying to write about music to make you realise how far short of the thing words almost always fall. It’s been an incredibly inspiring journey being here this year, exposing my ears to so much music and meeting so many wonderful people. I can recommend nothing more highly than putting yourself in this situation as often as possible.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

MJIF 2008: Day Four

Saturday 3 May: Day Four

Even a sleep-in didn’t lift the exhaustion of jazz overload today. Once I’d stretched and meditated my way back onto this plane, I suddenly got very real about the fact that I had yet to write a single word about the festival.

I decided the best, most efficient way to remedy this was to make some food, sit at my computer, get on the phone, book some gigs back home, check in with my friends and just generally do anything available to me except actually writing.

Luckily, the latter of these things proved to be very fruitful. As is often the case, I found a good old chat with my best friend Tnee brought the words pouring forth and that was enough to get the ball rolling. Something about having a best-friend/ musical-soul-mate in my life is very, very good. We listen to each other talk in a way not unlike making music and I think it helps us both work out what we really want to say.

So I wrote some stuff. And then I posted it on a blog. Well, I did that after learning what a blog is and figuring out how to make one. The long and the short of it is – bye bye Saturday!

I hit ‘Publish’ on my first two ever blog posts about 7.30pm and raced out the door to get to Hamer Hall just in time to be locked out of Tord Gustavsen Trio’s performance. I then had this wonderfully weird experience of being shepherded into ‘the viewing room’, from where I could see down on to the stage only 10 metres away, but could hear the music only as if it were miles off in the distance. And it’s very soft music to begin with! So a better option ended up being sitting in the foyer where the sound was broadcast at a listenable volume. As handsome as those Norwegian cats are, I was happy to sacrifice visual for audio.

After the first medley ended, the ushers let in the horde of late-comers. I sat through the concert feeling the calming effects of the music in a less direct way than I had at the master-class (click here for that blog post). Maybe it was being far away up in the stalls, maybe it was the cumulative listening fatigue of the week. It was still very peaceful. The final piece, a new unreleased one called The Other Side of Tango was gorgeous - an undulating tangoesque 3/4 that danced me to calmness.

I cained down to Southgate to get cheap end-of-the-day specials on Chinese takeaway during intermission and strolled fatly back up for Tomasz Stanko Quartet – late again. This time I only popped in for a couple of songs before it was all just a bit much and I left early to ensure getting a seat at the jam session at Bennetts.

The most outstanding feature I remember of that brief encounter was this bizarre irritation I felt towards Stanko’s drummer. It was so intense and just about everything he played really got on my nerves. I’m sure it said more about my state of mind than his playing and probably in contrast to how hard I was digging Jarle Vesperstad’s minimal approach, this guy’s busy-ness was just overwhelming, disappointing and frustrating. Wow, what a rollercoaster this has been!

I did manage to get a seat at the jam and it was another amazing late night live jazz experience. So much so that I reckon I’ll write a whole other blog post about the jam sessions, since there have just been so many great moments.

It was a really nice surprise to run into a friend from Brisbane at the jam session, a great up and coming double bass player Nick Quigley. It’s lovely when the jazz community brings people together like that regardless of distance from home.

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Powerful Elegance

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Master Class @ BMW Edge

2.30pm Fri 2 May

Tord Gustavsen – piano
Harald Johnsen – double bass
Jarle Vespestad – drums

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Powerful Elegance

Click here to listen to some of this trio’s music.

TGIII began by playing three inter-segued pieces. Each was pensive and delicate, characterised by rich harmonies faithful to romantic melodies. Rhythmically the music was subtle and spare, silence transformed into stillness, the time expressed through spaciousness.

Tord then answered questions and spoke about what is at the core of the trio’s approach. The distillation of the group’s concept is to hold one thing most sacred – ‘being here’. The act of playing the music is about cherishing presence and awareness. The music speaks clearly of this and, in effect, the process becomes the same for the listener.

To listen to this music and lie in wait for an outburst of excited expression will probably lead to disappointment. It is music which, as Tord pointed out in response to a compliment from an audience member, can be listened to intently or can be appreciated as atmospheric mood music. There is a direct connection between the music’s ability to function in both these ways and the reverent approach to intention adopted by these three.

Tord described the ‘force-field’ within which they are constantly working, balancing between the desire for expressivity and the desire to be concise. He wants the emotional essence of the music to come from some place raw and immediate, while at the same time wishing to express that emotion in the clearest, most elegant way.

This often means a minimalist approach, playing only the bare bones of what is necessary to outline the song at each moment. The drummer Jarle Vespestad may imply a slow, rock-ish 4/4 beat that is clearly felt, but only touch the drums five or six times in four bars. His control and poise, his unwavering connection to the sonic expressive potential of each of his drums and cymbals, is mesmerising.

The improvisations which follow the statements of the melody, including the drum and bass solos, are exercises in meditation. Tord’s piano style is exploratory, not experimental. He communicates with the core of each moment, as if asking the song what should come next. His craft lies in his ability to receive this guidance and transmit it directly through his fingers. He is joined with the piano as one; they share the same goal.

For all the delicacy of the playing, there is somehow no lack of power or sincerity in the music. The statements of each player individually and their fluid collective motion have a kind of space-dust quality to them – within each tiny particle of music there is an immense, universal density. This comes from their commitment to being here.

The bass drum booms softly, like a distant cannon or a near heartbeat. The double bass notes swell like whale language or a monk’s chant. The piano drifts and dreams like a mind or simply is, like nature.

The invitation, then, is extended to the listener to share in this experience. The choice is there to focus on the detail of the music and the prowess of the players, or to let the music be the soundtrack to your own inner journey of awareness.

The trio played a final piece, entitled Where Breathing Begins.

In the space that immediately followed, my friend Melissa and I both had a similar experience of coming into awareness of a deep bodily relaxation. I said I felt like I’d just had a massage and she said it was also like receiving counselling. To a listener who accepts the invitation, this trio’s music is among the most powerfully transformative I have ever encountered.

MJIF 2008: Day Three

Friday 2 May: Day Three

Friday began with a visit to Jon Weber’s stint at the Piano for Kids series. Click here to check out my blog post on just how much fun THAT was!

From there it was back out into the windy, sun-blotched Federation Square for some Movin’ and Groovin’ Orchestra action on the freestage. I met up with one of my best friends, jazz singer Melissa Western and her lovely mum Row. We decided we would all go and sit in on the Tord Gustavsen Trio master-class at the BMW Edge.

This innocuous little session turned out to be the highlight of my festival experience so far. You can click here to read my post about why this was so inspiring.

It was a bit weird going back out into the busy, chaotic world after such a calming experience. Funnily enough, I guess the Zen thing to remember is that they’re actually one and the same place and experience. Blaring car horns and multiple sources of clashing music are made from the same stuff as quiet reflection on beautiful piano trio interactions. But still – aaaahh!!!

Melissa decided the only logical remedy was soup. She’s pretty wise like that. She led us to a homey soup shop on Degreaves and we warmed our souls with various tasty broths. After some good chat and with full bellies, it was time to part ways and I helplessly gravitated towards more jazz.

At 5:30pm I listened to Aaron Choulai’s Sextet play some really involved, very impressive original music. The stark contrast to the elegance of Tord’s trio was a little too much for my ears to adapt to. I got a few highs, especially from the really organic phrasing and heavy deliberateness of the melodies, but most of it washed over me and left me feeling a bit overwhelmed. Ah well, it was bound to happen eventually!

The rest of the evening was spent with Melissa attending the opening of her friend’s play Venus in Furs, playing at Theatreworks in St Kilda. It was exciting to have a break from jazz and yet still be soaking up rich art. The play was quite engaging and it was nice to not only be entertained but made to feel so many things, being dragged into the emotional tug of war between the two main characters. It’s a story about a sado-masochist relationship and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes independent theatre.

What can you do after having your emotions whipped to a quivering pulp except go and eat chocolate? After a quick burger to get savoury pseudo-nourishment out of the way, we slid into a booth at San Churros and ordered the most ridiculous thing you ever saw – chocolate tapas. I’m not going to try to describe this – just eat it. Fly from wherever you are to Melbourne immediately and eat this.

We crawled into the car and motored on over to Bennetts Lane just in time to be told it was sold out – almost before the music even began! Good for them and for the musicians, that’s really awesome that this event is doing its thing and attracting lots of people to experience the jam atmosphere.

It was probably also good for us in some ways. Our ears were just about as chockers as our tummies and the relatively early night gave much-needed extra hours of snoozing, dreaming of chocolate jazz.

Jon Weber @ Piano for Kids, BMW Edge

12:00pm Fri 2 May

Jon Weber: Likes to Play Piano

It was well worth rising early (by jazz festival standards) to go and see Jon Weber do Piano for Kids. I arrived late and tip-toed in to see Jon sitting at the piano, surrounded by little people craning their little necks to see over his huge shoulders.

He sat, played, stood spoke, twirled and joked like a wise, warm guru, planting the seeds of music enjoyment and appreciation. Some of these kids might live a life devoted to jazz and may well forever remember the day they first heard the music of Duke Ellington played live.

It was such a heart-warming scene seeing this piano giant surrounded by kids (about 30 or so), as engrossed (as 3-to-11-y-o’s can be) in his mini-tour of piano styles and musical moods.

In the space of an hour, JW managed to cover major and minor feels, stride, Duke, quotes, improvisation as making your own version (something kids do instinctively), blues, classical, night, images, film + tv, Take Five, James P Johnson and on and on. These were all delivered in bite size chunks – easily digestible, fun snippets that I think had the desired effect. He maintained the flow and pace throughout, demonstrating a clear grasp of the young attention span.

The constant stream of information came predominantly in the form of actually playing the piano, occasionally speaking while playing incredibly complex things as if to say, “Practice, kids, and this will one day be easy”. Jon places enormous trust in the music to get the message across, using words, jokes, facial gestures and body language sparingly to entertain and keep things moving.

This Piano for Kids thing is a beautiful idea and in JW’s case worked in an impeccably improvised fashion. The spontaneous creation of a fun learning environment ended up just being a simple, logical extension of Jon’s persona: a piano player who loves to play. His visible, audible enjoyment is contagious, regardless of age.

I heard Jon say that if even one kid went away and took on jazz music in their life, he would be immensely happy. I’d say there may well be a few little ones coming down with a bad case of jazz after today!

MJIF 2008: Day Two

Thursday 1 May: Day 2

By the time my 3am-jam-session-induced musical hangover cleared, I awoke in the middle of working the afternoon away at my laptop. Half of me was transcribing my interview with Jon Weber, half of me was doing work stuff for my music management business and half of me was thinking about how hungry I was. I know that makes one and a half of me, but this is how little sense things make after a 12-hour stint of jazz infused directly into the brain.

When I say I awoke, I mean cottoned on to the notion that I am, in fact, me and alive and a human being chillin’ in time and space. Sometimes it takes until well into the day to realise this, sometimes I don’t really get it at all, on a good day i’ll wake up and stretch and meditate and figure it out pretty early. Then of course it’s pretty easy to forget again.

Today it was about 4pm before I remembered my existence and decided to drop everything and go see some more live jazz!

The tail end of the Fed Square freebies was freezing, but worthwhile just to get a preliminary fix. From there it was off to dinner with my good friend Lexy, who deserves a shout-out for her amazingly generous hospitality and her general friendliness. Yeah, Lex! We hit up a Mexican joint and had filled ourselves to the brim by dessert.

Clutching a fat stomach I hobbled over to the Regent Theatre to see Dr Abdullah Ibrahim, who at this point was some piano dude who I guess I’ve heard cited as an influence by jazz pianists I respect and, ya know, the promo photo in the program looks pretty heavy, so could be alright.

The experience proved to be enlightening. Another full blog post on this is here.

In the foyer after the concert I met up with one of the aforementioned pianists, a friend from Brisbane named John Reeves. He recently went to Ghana to study African drumming, song and dance, so he was pretty into the EKAYA thing (the name of Ibrahim’s group for the night). The effect the concert had on him was as visible as when I saw him post-Ibrahim-masterclass the previous afternoon. He was deeply touched by the experience and it is hard to put into words the profound sense I get that the hugeness of music is everything I dream it to be when I see someone that positively affected.

I’d like to point out that I’ve already met so many great people at this year’s festival. The foyer of the concerts, the jam sessions, the festival office – all these places are brimming with jazz enthusiasts from all walks of life, brought together to have this shared festival experience. It makes for a great community vibe and it is truly a blessing to be a part of this for a week.

After EKAYA, it was on for drinks and conversation in some random bar in some random alley-way (I love being led around this city!) with John and friends. After a bit of space from the awe of the experience (and perhaps the beers helped), we were all able to finally talk about the concert and the unanimous decision was ‘mmmmm’.

There was some debate as to whether one could possibly throw one’s ears into the late night jam session environment after such a soothing experience. But what can I say except, “Hello, my name is Greg and I am an addict”.